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Monthly Archives: February 2010

The New Topographics was the name of a exhibit of ten photographers that occurred in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I was still in high school when the show occurred, and I wasn’t into either art or photography, so its occurrence passed my notice.  I first heard about the show in 1982 or 1983 when another photographer mentioned the show as some kind of legendary event, and that the catalogue was very hard to come by, maybe the first time I ever realized that photography books might be collectable objects.  I had just started collecting photography books, back before the internet, when you might find almost anything in a used bookstore, but I never found a copy.  Then in 2000 a copy came up on e-bay–I had no idea what the book might be worth, the current bid was something like $20 when I first saw the item—so I set my wristwatch alarm, sniped a last second bid and won the book for $51.

The book itself was a bit of puzzle—it was obviously a catalog for a museum exhibit, cheaply printed, with an essay that talked about the photographs in terms of style—not of substance.  The rest of the catalog contained three images by each of the ten photographers included in the show, a thin selection in most cases, unsatisfyingly short for photographers I knew and respected, (Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, Joe Deal, and Bernd and Hilla Beecher) and annoyingly incomplete for the one photographer I had never heard of—John Schott.    I put the book on the shelf, and mostly have been impressed by subsequent sales since then—up to $1800, never less than $340—beats the hell out of the stock market…

The new “New Topographics”, printed by Steidel, is both much more satisfying and much more annoying than the original.  The more satisfying part is the inclusion of many more well printed images from each of the individual photographers, allowing the viewer a sense of the zeitgeist of the time—both in the landscape, and in the way the photographers approached it.  One of the annoying aspects, though, is that the image selection in the book is still less than the images in the 1975 show—I’m not quite sure why that bothers me—except that I missed the show the first time around, and deleting images from the book seems like I’m missing the full effect this time around, too…  I must admit, I counted images deleted from each of the photographers this time—almost like the editorial staff rationed the pain, mostly cutting everybody back to 15 images except the biggest cuts were from Stephen Shore (but lately he’s been publishing a lot from this pre-1975 body of work—maybe we really don’t need to see those images republished again…).

Perhaps worth noting is that 1975 was the year that Ansel Adams was on the ascendancy—several years before, he had announced that he would stop taking print orders at the end of 1975—his work was becoming famous, and smart buyers were streaming into his gallery and buying prints directly from the man himself.   And Walker Evans, the most direct predecessor of most of these artists, died on April 10, in relative obscurity.   By 1975, Lewis Baltz had published “The New Industrial Parks of Irvine, California” (1974), and Robert Adams had published “The New West” (1974)—their reputations were already made,  and many critics were already savaging their work.

It is perhaps worth comparing the reprinted New Topographics  with Walker Evans & Company, published in 2000, twenty five years after the show.  This book includes work by most of the New Topographics photographers, plus many others, all working in the spirit of Walker Evans.  This book feels somehow more complete, but also shows that the work of the New Topographics artists did not arise from a complete vacuum—Walker Evans had been there before, and defined a style of photography that embraced the vernacular landscape, that attempted to hide the viewpoint of the photographer with a style so straightforward that it seemed to be no style at all.   The best of the New Topographics artists have continued to refine and update this way of making photographs—but it is hard to argue that they invented it out of nothing.

Maybe the New Topographics label stuck so that it was possible to talk about landscape in a way that avoided the unreal exaggerations marketed as art—that embraced the place we live.  And for a long time, they were the losers—the Ghost Dancers.  Robert Adams perhaps described them when he wrote “Might we somehow learn the hope of the Plains Indians who… danced the Ghost Dance, their final celebration of their dream of the land’s restoration?  The ceremonies were often held, judging by the images we have, in scrappy pastures right at the edge of their enemies’ contempt.” –maybe that was the spirit of the “New Topographics” show.

To complete my list of ten photographers I admire (the black and white version) here are three photographers:   Emmet Gowin,  Lewis Baltz, and John Gossage.

Emmet Gowin makes beautiful photographs—simple images, and beautiful prints—of his family, and of the earth.  I think his work was some of the first I ever saw in a gallery with real prints—in Philadelphia in 1979 or so—and I know that his 1976 Photographs was the first real photo book I ever bought—I paid $18 for a slightly worn copy without a dust jacket–back in my days as a graduate student when that was a lot of money.  His use of split toning affected my sense of what a photographic print could be—a luminous object, unique, precious.

Emmet Gowin

Emmet Gowin

Lewis Baltz’s work has always seemed rigorous, precise, and damning, the presenting of evidence so effectively that protest seems pointless, the damage done so obvious and ubiquitous.  I remember seeing his images first as a undergraduate—the “Industrial Parks of Irvine, California”, then as a graduate student, seeing his images from Park City at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and then purchasing “San Quentin Point”  at the Strand Bookstore in New York.   His work requires and rewards attention.

Lewis Baltz, Nevada

Lewis Baltz, Nevada

A few years ago, I had an hour or two to kill in San Francisco, and visited Candlestick Point, a Baltz landscape, photographed in the late 1980s, a landscape trashed by industry.  What I found was something resembling a park, a landscape scared but recovering, covered in flowers, a hang out for dog walkers and drug dealers.

John Gossage rounds out the list, my favorite work of his being “The Pond”, a book published in 1985, the title apparently a reference to Thoreau, but the book is a visual rant loosely organized around a neighborhood walk in some typically seedy suburban space, somehow the opposite of Walden (Walled In?).  The book is beautifully printed and compelling at least in part because the subject matter of most of the photographs is so banal that it becomes provocative.  There are some surprises in the book, like the original photograph laid in on the cloth cover, but hidden by one of the least attractive dust jackets ever, and the inclusion of an essay so opaque and irritating that its sole function seems to be to argue against the inclusion of an essay in any book of photographs…

John Gossage, Berlin

John Gossage, Berlin

Much of the rest of Gossage’s work is overtly political, including Berlin in the time of the Wall (dark and dismal photographs from the 1980s of the Berlin Wall), Empire (photographs of Ancient Egypt by Dr. H.W. Vogel and of Washington DC during the Desert Storm victory celebrations), and Hey Fuckface (photographs from neighborhoods near superfund sites).   It sometimes seems that he is making photographs of things that cannot be photographed (political displays of power, environmental contaminants), and many of his individual photographs appear to fail by conventional standards.

And then there is the visual treat of Snake Eyes, Gossage’s simple black and white images matched against Terri Weifenbach’s sumptuous color plates, images made in the same place and the same time and infused with beauty and love.  And the essay at the beginning of the book—short and sweet, but part of one of the most interesting discussions I’ve ever encountered in photography or in art.  (The other half of the discussion is in Along Some Rivers, by Robert Adams…)